New Orleans’ health director advises ‘short period’ of indoor masking amid COVID-19 surge

Published: May. 17, 2022 at 9:30 AM CDT|Updated: May. 17, 2022 at 8:40 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - City health director Dr. Jennifer Avegno called for a “short period” of universal indoor masking in public spaces to avert a burgeoning surge of COVID-19 infections being detected in New Orleans.

Avegno said Tuesday (May 17) that recent test results have officials deeply concerned about the potential for a significant summer wave of disease that could overwhelm hospitals, similar to what happened with last summer’s spread of the Delta variant.

“Wearing a high-quality mask has been proven to significantly lower the risk of viral transmission,” Avegno said. “And so, as we are on the cusp, or in the middle -- wherever we are in this surge -- we’re strongly recommending returning to universal, broad indoor masking in public spaces.

“If we, as a community, can adopt short-term but widespread indoor masking again, we can get back to not needing a mask much quicker. ... I want to stress, this is not a mandate. But, the more people do this, that’s going to determine how long or short we stay in the surge, how many people get sick and how much business disruption we have. If we wear them for a short period of time, we will get back to normal quickly.”

The rise in cases was being detected both through on-site testing results reported to the city and state health departments, and in wastewater testing that Avegno said is showing increased infection in New Orleans’ hospitality district and in residential neighborhoods.

“In Orleans Parish, as of (Monday), our average daily case count was 155 -- and that’s about a five-times increase from a month ago,” she said. “We’re still doing a lot of PCR testing, and that’s what gets reported, but we recognize that most individuals are using at-home tests. So, we know that total case count is a big under-representation of the true burden of disease.

“It’s clear the virus is circulating widely. ... The good news is we are not seeing a strain on our hospital capacity, yet.”

“The City of New Orleans remains vigilant in our response to COVID-19 and is taking the necessary steps to prevent seeing another surge of high infection levels in our city,” said Mayor LaToya Cantrell.

“As recommended by Dr. Jennifer Avegno, who has guided us through the ongoing pandemic since day one, wearing masks indoors, handwashing, vaccinations, boosters, and getting tested when not feeling well continue to be our most effective tools against COVID-19. These measures will help mitigate the rise of infections we are now seeing and have experienced over the last couple years. The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and we will continue to follow the guidelines set forth by the Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I am urging residents to protect themselves and utilize the mitigation measures put in place to help prevent another significant surge,” Cantrell said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.

Avegno said “we think we have time” to get ahead of a significant summer surge. But she warned that was only possible if enough people are vaccinated, update their protection when booster shots are due, and practice the safety and mitigation measures that have been widely abandoned in recent months as largely unmasked groups gathered for festivals, graduations, spring weddings and crawfish boils.

“We’re going back to the basics -- testing, masking, vaccination and treatment,” Avegno said, referring to the therapeutic medication Paxlovid, a treatment pill not yet available in the past two summers of the pandemic.

“Test early and often, is what I will tell everyone in this surge. If you’ve been exposed -- and many of us have in recent days -- test immediately upon learning of the exposure, and then test several days later.

“If you start developing any symptoms -- anything, from runny nose, sneezing, coughing, fever, body aches, feeling really tired, having stomach issues -- COVID can present in many, many ways. So, take that test. The sooner that you know if you’re infected, the fewer people you’re going to infect.”

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